Many reasons behind decline of religious Americans

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:51 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that the number of Americans who claim no religion is growing. Just the way gun sales are escalating tips me off to that fact.

In any case, according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, 15 percent of the population now falls into the category of the non-religious. This is the third in a series of surveys produced by Trinity College’s Program on Public Values. The earlier surveys conducted by the Hartford, Conn., group happened in 1990 and 2001.


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The survey found that 90 percent of the decline came from mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian/Anglican and United Church of Christ. While Baptists, the largest non-Catholic denomination, grew in number, they nevertheless were a part of the decline when it came to the proportion of Christians in the population. The survey found that most of the growth among Christians happened in the evangelical and born-again or non-denominational Christian groups. The major news about Catholics is that their population is shifting from the Northeast toward the Southwest. Immigration and population increases among Latinos are considered contributing factors in this shift.

Mormons make up 1.6 percent of the population. Those who identify with Judaism have declined in number and in 2008 represented 1.2 percent of the population. The number of those adhering to the Muslim faith is growing and in the latest survey represented .6 percent of the population.

The least religious section of the country, formerly the Pacific Northwest, is now Northern New England. Vermont is the least religious of the 48 contiguous states in which the survey was taken. The investigators said there was a margin of error of less than 0.5 percent.

This is an important piece of research because it puts to rest certain assumptions that some are prone to make about religion in these United States. And it definitely challenges mainline Protestant churches to try to figure out why they are losing rather than winning the soul of Americans.

I suppose one reason for the decline is the fact that fewer children seem to be attending Sunday school nowadays, and not many grow up in the family’s church of choice. During the first half of the last century, it was a tradition that families as a whole attended church together.And I’m sure the era of the televangelists has certainly played a major role in the changing dynamics. While the old radio preachers could be heard in the home usually only once a week, one or another of the televangelist conducts services 24-7. These preachers probably turn as many people off as they turn on.

And with Christianity speaking in so many voices these days, it is certainly understandable why people who have no religious training would be reluctant to get involved. Those of us who are Christians and believe that religion is an important part of life can only shudder when we hear this kind of news. The fact, too, that some Christians want to blur the line between church and state also drives a lot of people away from the faith.

One would think that the many religious day-care centers and parochial schools would produce a steady flow of willing congregants. And many churches try to set up programming designed to attract new members. The one area I find that churches seem not to be as active in is local missions. Certainly some churches are outstanding when it comes to food pantries and clothes closets, but one sees a lot fewer in neighborhood cleanup projects or assistance to senior citizens. Services such as lawn mowing, snow shoveling and repairing locks on doors and windows are less likely to be found among church missions.

I observe many churches where the members show up for such standard meetings as worship service, Bible study and choir rehearsal. To some nonattenders, such churches appear to be just another social club.

In any case, choosing to be a believer or a nonbeliever is a very personal decision. I once had a friend who contended that the problem she had with Christians was that they coveted everyone’s soul. Probably she was stretching that a little, but it is true that some Christians proselytize to the extent that they make other people uncomfortable.

Among Christians that I know, the ones that seem the most secure and comfortable in their faith are those who for the most part made the journey by themselves. Their religion is a part of who they are.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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Ray Shapiro March 24, 2009 | 4:39 p.m.

Perhaps people who are on a spiritual path and seek answers from organized religious businesses are becoming more disillusioned with the politics and hypocrisy of large, impersonal cliques. I don't have to be affiliated with any congregation to have a relationship with my higher power and still aspire to lead a decent, law abiding, spiritual-based life.
The word "religious" has become synonymous with the word "prude." Perhaps spirituality, family values and "humane" behavior has more importance today than declaring one's religion. As long as that religion is not hedonism or satanic worship, per se.
(You need to excuse me now, as my cat has misbehaved and I need to throw her against the wall.)

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr March 24, 2009 | 5:34 p.m.

Religion is man made from with out and spiritualism is God given from with in.

That is the main difference and is one of the main reasons this society as a whole is in spiritual decline because people would rather believe in their materialism than in God who is spirit.

When the Sadducee and the Pharisee come off their high and mighty pulpit and actually remember the people maybe this society might still have a chance.

(Report Comment)
Melinda Lockwood March 25, 2009 | 2:50 p.m.

What in the world does gun ownership have to do with Christianity? I consider myself a Christian, own several guns (handguns and rifles alike) and see no correlation at all between the two. The rest of Rose's opinion piece was moderately interesting but she almost lost me with the gun comment! It was irrelevant to the piece in my opinion.

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